Story: Ngāi Tahu

Migrating from the North Island’s East Coast, Ngāi Tahu thrived in the South Island. They intermarried with local tribes, and adopted their beliefs. Their lands cover much of Te Wai Pounamu – the South Island – and are New Zealand’s largest single tribal territory.

Story by Te Maire Tau
Main image: Aoraki/Mt Cook in the Southern Alps

Story summary

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Tribal origins

Ngāi Tahu trace their tribal identity back to Paikea, who lived in the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. To escape being killed at sea by his brother, he came to New Zealand on the back of a whale. Ngāi Tahu share this ancestor with the Ngāti Porou people. One of Paikea’s descendants was Tahupōtiki, from whom Ngāi Tahu take their name. He lived on the East Coast of the North Island.

The move south

From the East Coast, Ngāi Tahu migrated south, first to Wellington, then across Cook Strait to the South Island. This was known as Te Wai Pounamu, the greenstone waters – named after the beautiful and valuable stone found on the West Coast. As Ngāi Tahu moved down the island they fought several battles with two tribes already living there: Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha. By the end of the 18th century Ngāi Tahu had reached Foveaux Strait at the bottom of the South Island, and occupied the West Coast.

The land

It was not just through warfare that Ngāi Tahu came to occupy much of the South Island. They also mixed with Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha through marriages with the families of chiefs. They studied and adopted the traditions and history of Waitaha, whose ancestor Rākaihautū is said to have carved out the South Island’s lakes and mountains with his digging stick. Waitaha believed the landmarks surrounding them were their ancestors, and that the winds were related to each other like members of a family.

The wars with Ngāti Toa

In the 1820s and 1830s the powerful chief Te Rauparaha led the North Island tribe Ngāti Toarangatira in attacks on Ngāi Tahu. Armed with muskets, they were seeking revenge for tribal insults and killings. They also wanted to take control of the valuable greenstone in the region. Ngāi Tahu suffered greatly. They survived for three months when Te Rauparaha surrounded their at Kaiapoi, but when strong winds caused a fire, the enemy rushed in and killed the people. However, Ngāi Tahu did not lose their territory. On one occasion Ngāi Tahu nearly captured Te Rauparaha himself in a surprise attack from behind a hill at Kāpara-te-hau (Lake Grassmere).

The Ngāi Tahu claim

Ngāi Tahu sold most of their land to the British Crown between 1844 and 1863. The Crown had promised to leave some of the land and the food-gathering places in the hands of the tribe, and to provide schools and hospitals. But the government did not keep these promises, and for 150 years, Ngāi Tahu pursued a claim for compensation. Their claim was finally settled in the 1990s. Among other things, it returned the sacred mountain of Aoraki/Mt Cook to the tribe and acknowledged their ownership of pounamu (greenstone).

In the 2013 census, almost 55,000 people said they were of Ngāi Tahu descent.

How to cite this page:

Te Maire Tau, 'Ngāi Tahu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Te Maire Tau, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2017